RICH JAMES: NIRPC should hold sway on South Shore extension

2013-12-18T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: NIRPC should hold sway on South Shore extensionBy Rich James nwitimes.com
December 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The two most significant events I’ve seen in nearly four decades of writing about government in Northwest Indiana happened in the last couple of weeks.

That’s quite a statement. And yes, it doesn’t bode well for the region. But hey, it might well show that we have turned a very large corner.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission last week overwhelmingly approved the Illiana Expressway in the face of passionate opposition. It’ll be the first significant Lake County highway project in five decades.

And about the same time, Lake County’s plethora of governments seemed just a step away — after years of jostling — from forming a countywide E-911 system.

Is there hope that NWI is coming together for the common good? I hope to tell you.

Before anyone decides to kick back and light a cigar, they should be reminded that there’s work to be done. And the next deadline is looming.

After the Illiana folks left the NIRPC meeting last week, the agency adopted a resolution supporting increased financial support for South Shore Line railroad expansion.

It’s nice that they did that, but resolutions are virtually spineless. Resolutions are what governmental bodies do when they don’t have the power to do anything else.

South Shore expansion from Chicago to Lowell should be next on the region’s agenda of moving out of the 1950s into the 21st century.

And, yes, it should happen now. South Shore expansion has been studied to death. It is time to acquire track, buy cars and hire conductors.

And the guy who’s grown most impatient is U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, the guy holding much of the money.

And the usually mild-mannered Visclosky laid down the law a couple months ago. He said he wants a local funding source to match the federal money he can acquire by March.

A local funding source ought to include state money and a local tax. And because there will be South Shore expansion to Valparaiso after Lowell, all of Northwest Indiana ought to pay for it. Don’t tell me that some Porter County people won’t slide over to Lowell to ride the new train to Chicago for jobs that pay 40 percent more than similar jobs here.

Settling on a new tax is a fairly dicey proposition. The General Assembly will have to authorize a new tax that would be adopted locally.

So how do we arrive at a consensus?

We need a facilitator, someone to bring us together. Because there isn’t a dominant city in Northwest Indiana, that consensus will have to be reached by committee. And that ought to be NIRPC.

By law, NIRPC had to vote on the Illiana. It doesn’t have to do anything in terms of South Shore funding. But it should if it wants to live up to its name of being a regional planning agency.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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